The Ark of Option B (Shabbat Noach)

Written by Student Rabbi Eleanor Davis — 23 October 2023

Back in 2015, Sheryl Sandberg was one of the top people at Facebook – so following the sudden, early death of her husband Dave Goldberg, her comments on the helpfulness of Jewish mourning traditions and the process of grief received unusually much global coverage.  One of the stories she told was from her early weeks of bereavement, when a friend was helping her to get someone to fill in for her late husband at a father-child event.  She found herself in tears all over again, wanting Dave to be there, wanting not to have to make these alternative plans.  The friend with her put his arm around her and told her: “Option A is not available.  So let’s kick the [stuffing] out of Option B.”  That comment helped her through a tricky moment; it also would eventually inspire a book called Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy.

It’s a book that might have helped Noah, several millennia earlier.  The opening of this week’s sedra is a story of extreme adversity: when the earth becomes filled with what our Rabbis translate as either immorality or violence, God resolves to destroy the world by sending a flood.  Noah and his immediate family survive in the Ark that God tells him to build, along with some of every species of animal; and eventually a rainbow symbolises God’s promise never to do this again.

We often pause to debate the meaning of one of the opening verses of the parashah: “נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time” (Genesis 6:9): which could mean that in another time, he might not have been considered righteous for just quietly obeying God’s order to build an ark, rather than speaking out.  Because we know how the story ends, even adults often consider Noah and the Ark a cheerful children’s story, with jolly songs like “the animals came in two by two,” if you grew up British, or the American equivalent, the Arky Arky song where “the Lord said to Noah, there’s gonna be a floody, floody…”  We gloss over the pain and sheer devastation of a flood that destroys all life except that on the ark, and instead criticise Noah – just one man – for not stopping the global catastrophe.

Yet it could be possible that Noah was a truly righteous man, despite the times in which he lived doing nothing to help him be righteous.  We might imagine the difficulties of building the ark; the rabbis of the midrash (Tanhuma Noach 9) also describe the difficult circumstances while he was on board.  “Neither Noah or his sons were able to sleep during the entire year they spent in the ark, because of the demands of feeding all the animals” – each needing to be fed different foods at different times of day.  Yet although they imagine him emerging from the ark in pain, nowhere do the rabbis imagine Noah giving up on or becoming too broken to continue the almost impossible task of caring for the animals.

Despite the challenge to his physical health, that routine in the ark helped them live to see a new world being started.  It’s Noah’s persistence that eventually sees them all back to dry land, safe and well – and persistence and routines sound rather like modern advice on resilience…  Resilience does not mean denying or ignoring the impact on us of the tragedies and traumas that will at one point or another affect every person’s life, from personal bereavements to terror attacks or wars.  Resilience is the ability to feel those pains and carry on living; to grieve for Option A but find the strength to take on Option B.

This week we passed 600 days of war in Ukraine: the nation’s resilience in the face of existential threat has been most clearly seen in their determination to keep the ordinary things going.  Just like Noah feeding the animals, Ukraine is battle-scarred but has kept much of normal life running, including postal deliveries even in newly-liberated areas.  Beyond the bombs and bullets, keeping daily life and routines going can be a way of channelling courage into resisting psychological warfare.  Your morning swim, your Friday night dinner, even just showing up for work or school: all these can be active resistance to terror and help build future resilience.

This resilience is also a Jewish imperative, connected with our teachings about the important mitzvah of giving tzedakah.  The Talmudic Sages (BT Ketubot 50a) state very clearly that a person should not give more than a fifth of their wealth away as tzedakah – because you should not make yourself poor and unable to give again in future.  Similarly, it is vitally important to care for ourselves, even or especially in times of trauma, so that we will be able to help others not just today, but tomorrow and as far into the future as we are needed.  You may need a reminder to eat, or eat healthily; to exercise or to sleep – learning from Noah’s failures as well as his successes.  You may need prodding to take breaks from reading the endless heartbreaking news from Israel or be selective about what you share on social media.  You may need to come to shul to remember that you are not alone, or embrace moments of joyful celebration which refresh your memory of how beautiful life can be.

We can feel that taking time for self-care is impossible in our state of anxiety and grief, or that it is somehow abandoning those we care about.  Yet if we are not to become useless to them by burning ourselves out, we need to build our resilience by recharging our physical and spiritual batteries before they run out.

In the face of an existential threat in Noah’s time, it was routine and basic care on the ark that kept them going until dry land reappeared.  When Option A – staying on the earth – was no longer available, Noah certainly went above and beyond with Option B.   For us, Option A – a world without war – is not currently available, but we do still have Option B: to build our resilience so that we can keep on working and caring, helping and hoping, until the dry land of peace appears.  May we all live to see that day.